The first community oven in the Pittsburgh area is on a parking lot directly across the street from U.S. Steel's Edgar Thomson plant, the only working blast furnace remaining from Pittsburgh's steel-making days.
The oven is one more piece in the puzzle that is the re-purposing of Braddock as an artist's destination and once-again-vibrant community.
"The steel furnaces built Braddock," says Mayor John Fetterman. "It might take another kind of furnace, an oven, to help rebuild it."
Last December, Ray Werner, bread baker, community activist and godfather of the oven project, explained to Mr. Fetterman why a wood-fired community baking oven -- one that the public shares -- would be a good fit for Braddock. The mayor had an immediate reaction. "We'll do it," he said. "How much? How can I help?"
Nine months later, the oven is up and baking beside the former convent at St. Michael's on Braddock Avenue. With Edgar Thomson's billowing stacks in the background, the oven's first burn was in mid-September. "The first pizzas had a bit of char," Mr. Werner says.
"But by the end of the baking session, the crew was making really good pizza. When they get the hang of the heat and what the oven can do, bread bakers will follow."
Mr. Fetterman says, "The building of the oven is the result of three serendipitous facts. Ray proposed the idea and had the working plans for the oven. Then I met Joe Bonifate, a local stone mason from North Braddock, who was enthusiastic about building it. And because so many old, deteriorating buildings have been razed in Braddock, I have access to materials.
"The oven is made from recycled brick from houses, cinder block reclaimed from an abandoned garage and surplus stones from one of Joe's projects. If we hadn't reclaimed and recycled, everything you see would have gone into a landfill."
Every year Americans demolish some 250,000 homes and bury the debris. What if all those floors, bricks and beams were reused?
"And because we didn't have to fit the building into a schedule, costs were kept to a minimum," says Mr. Fetterman. "We built it for a song."
That's a song Mr. Werner wants to be sung all over the Pittsburgh area.
Mr. Werner's goal is to see Pittsburgh become a community of community ovens, the first in the country.
"An oven is like a campfire. People are drawn to the fire, where good conversation and socialization are certain. I see a need for community ovens in neighborhoods similar to Braddock such as Larimer, Hazelwood, Garfield, Homewood and Manchester -- communities that need an assist in bringing the neighborhood together."
The Braddock oven has its public coming out this Saturday at a literary reading where attendees can taste bread and pizza. Mr. Fetterman is still learning how it works and figuring out how to make it available to people, but, "We want to make it as open and accessible as possible" to bakers who know enough to not hurt themselves, the oven or adjacent property. By next summer, he hopes to develop the site further with a fire pit and landscaping. He's already hatching ideas for guest bakers, special events, family gatherings, pizza parties and cooking classes. Interested parties can contact him (email@example.com).
"Braddock is a community of pioneers," Mr. Werner says. "I'm so glad the first community oven was built here in this historic community."
Marlene Parrish can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-481-1620. First Published October 2, 2008 4:00 AM